Doyle’s Law: An Interview

David Benioff was teaching freshman composition at UC-Irvine when he first learned that Spike Lee was interested in the screen adaptation of his first published novel, 25th Hour. The collaboration between Benioff and Lee, both New Yorkers, resulted in a complex portrayal of a convicted heroin dealer’s final day of freedom before beginning a seven-year jail sentence. Monty Brogan’s sadness at leaving his friends, family and surroundings is all the more compelling in Benioff’s adaptation, which, unlike his novel, is set in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Filmbay recently discussed the process of adaptation with Benioff, as well as his experience as a New Yorker now living apart from the city.
Filmbay: You were living in Los Angeles at the time that you wrote the novel, but you’re a New Yorker. What made you decide to set 25th Hour in New York City?
David Benioff: Up to that point everything I had written had been set in New York. I didn’t really know anyplace else. I actually wrote the prologue to 25th Hour while in New York and plotted it out before I moved to Irvine. Being away from New York helped me with the book because Monty is nostalgic for the city even before he leaves. Monty is saying goodbye to his friends and family, but he’s also saying goodbye to the city. He’s being separated from the things he’s known for so long, from the only things he’s ever known. I think that makes the city a character. Being out in Irvine helped me in accessing that feeling. It’s about as far from New York as you can get.
Filmbay: The novel’s original title was Fireman Down, and the story contains multiple allusions to firefighting and firefighters (Monty wanted to be a firefighter as a child; Joe, his father, runs a bar frequented by firefighters). What did you have in mind with such allusions? Were you trying to suggest the ‘path not taken’?
Benioff: I was partly trying to suggest Monty’s guilt and despair. He had the common childhood fantasy of being a firefighter–which I had and which half of New York kids have. His fantasy was perhaps stronger than that of most kids and it lasted for a longer time: he knew everything about fire trucks, firemen, and fire equipment. Then he eventually made his other choice dealing drugs–which led him to this end jail. There’s this sense in the allusions to firefighting that Monty could have been someone that helped people. Instead he’s really been hurting people. There’s a sense of the waste of it all, the futility. I wanted to contrast the images of the heroic firemen with what he’s become.
Filmbay: The allusions were even more moving following the events of 9/11. Was it your suggestion to have actual New York City firefighters play the customers in Joe Brogan’s bar?
Benioff: That was Spike’s suggestion. At the premiere he thanked the firefighters who were used as extras, along with their firehouse.
Filmbay: You’ve noted that novelists are not normally hired to adapt their novels. Why were you interested in adapting 25th Hour?
Benioff: For two reasons. It allowed me to become a full-time writer. I was teaching Freshman Composition in Irvine, and it wasn’t giving me a chance to work on my writing. I was living in Los Angeles and commuting to Irvine. It was killing me. I wanted to be able to write, and the money was really nice. I was also nervous that they would hire some Malibu screenwriter type who had only gone to New York for vacation and who didn’t really know the city someone who would change the feeling of the story by doing something like giving it a happy ending. I felt the best way to protect the story, if I was going to stay involved, was to write the script. I got conflicting advice. Some writers say take the money and get as far away from Hollywood as you can because you won’t have any control over the project. My feeling was that I loved the story; I wanted to see it made into a movie, and I wanted it done right. The best way I had to ensure this was to write the script.
Filmbay: Did you have any films in mind as models–New York films, films with similar narrative or chronological structure–while you were writing the script?
Benioff: I read a bunch of scripts that were set in a compressed time frame before I started writing, in part because I really hadn’t read scripts before and I wanted to see the formatting and partly because I wanted to see how other screenwriters had done it. I looked at a lot of early Scorsese film scripts, and I read the script for American Graffiti because it’s set over the course of one night. I also read the script for Panic Room, which hadn’t come out yet but which I had heard a lot about. It’s set in a similar time frame and it’s a well- crafted script.
Filmbay: Did you do any research by watching films?
Benioff: A lot of what I was doing wasn’t conscious. I was consciously reading scripts, but I didn’t do a lot of research by watching films. I drew upon a number of the films that I’ve seen in my lifetime. Early Scorsese films definitely had an influence, and Lee films. Sometimes I drew upon films that weren’t similar in plot, but which I admired for dialogue. For example, Carnal Knowledge is one of my favorites. It’s nothing like 25th Hour, but I looked to it for the relationships it created between characters.
Filmbay: Was this the first time you had written a script?
Benioff: I wrote a script for a horror movie with a friend. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt that it would be a great way to learn. And it was. I tried to read a few screenwriting books but found that they were really poorly written. I also wrote the first draft of a script called Stay, that later sold, which I reworked extensively after I wrote 25th Hour.
Filmbay: You’ve said elsewhere that you had to adapt the novel from “the language of prose to the language of film.” How did you accomplish this?
Benioff: By screwing it up many times and trying to finally get it right. The first draft of the screenplay was basically the novel in script form, and it wasn’t really working. My job as a writer was to get behind the logic of how the story is read compared to how it is viewed. A lot of the dialogue remained the same in subsequent drafts, but I ended up shortening a number of the scenes. One of my weaknesses as a writer is that I feel like I have to have my characters talk a lot about what they’re thinking. You’re not really allowed that in the movies. It interferes with the narrative flow. It was a matter of figuring out what I needed to retain, identifying how the scenes held together, and creating a more cohesive narrative flow.
The book alternated focus among characters, whereas the film, with one or two exceptions, is much more focused on Monty as the main protagonist. Because of this, I had to figure out how to get across what the other characters were thinking onscreen. I got a lot of help from Spike. For example, the ‘fuck monologue’ is the center of the movie. I didn’t put it into the original draft of the script because I didn’t think it would work. But it provided a really important access to Monty’s mind, so Spike wanted it put back. He was right.
Filmbay: What was your reaction when you heard that Spike Lee was interested in directing the novel?
Benioff: Very surreal. It was thrilling, but very strange. It was kind of my fantasy to have Scorsese or Lee direct the film, but I didn’t really expect it. I was really happy about it when it happened.
Filmbay: It sounded like the two of you worked together really well.
Benioff: Yeah. I think it went really well. It was my first time working with a director, and it was easy because I admired Spike’s work. I had a lot of faith and confidence in him. It was a difficult movie to get made. It was a miracle that Disney financed it. Disney didn’t want the ‘fuck monologue,’ and I think that a weaker or inexperienced director lacking confidence to stand up to the studio would have folded, but Spike didn’t. It was really good for me to work with someone so experienced and so strong-willed.
Filmbay: The novel’s ‘fuck monologue’ is strikingly similar to a montage sequence from Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Did you notice the similarities prior to seeing the sequence from 25th Hour?
Benioff: No one who read the book made the link to the film. I’m sure it was an influence in the book, though I never thought about it that way. It never occurred to me until I was writing the scene for Spike. When I was writing the scene, I could picture how to do it, and I realized that the reason for this was because it was similar to Do the Right Thing. As a writer, you are the product of everything you’ve read and seen. Part of growing up in New York and becoming a writer is that all the things surrounding me have had an impact. So there’s no doubt in my mind that I was influenced by it, but no one saw that connection before the film was made.
Filmbay: It’s really effective in the novel. And it’s one of the more powerful scenes in the film.
Benioff: I can actually remember where I was when I had the idea for it. I wanted to get into Monty’s head and have an active anchor in his thought process. I was sitting with people at a table in Irvine, and I had this idea about a monologue–a riff on the word ‘fuck.’ I was an Irish Literature Masters student when I lived in Ireland, and I probably got the idea (without being pretentious) from Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses, where she riffs so incredibly on the word ‘yes.’ The obvious answer to that would be a ‘no monologue,’ but that’s kind of lame. The idea of the ‘fuck monologue’ came from that. It was a way of trying to get into what Monty would be thinking with the language that he would use.
Filmbay: The scene is also extremely sad and angry. It suggests both how much Monty is going to miss the city and how much anger he has towards the place. Can you explain the ways in which the sequence captures his love/hate relationship with New York?
Benioff: You don’t get that specific with anything unless you have a passion for it. Monty is that way about firemen–he knows everything about their trucks, their equipment and everything else. And that’s the way he is about the city and its neighborhoods and its various tribes. There’s a passion there. That’s not to say that there’s not anger there, as well. I’ve heard the scene cast as a love letter to New York. There’s some truth to it, but that kind of whitewashes it a little bit too. It’s a love letter and a hate letter. For any New Yorker there are times when you adore your city, and there are times when you can’t stand it. There’s a lot of hostility. It’s not really a valentine, though the interesting thing is that when I first wrote the novel, all the chapters had titles and the title for that chapter was “Monty’s Valentine.”
Filmbay: How do you see the monologue in a post-9/11 context?
Benioff: 9/11 definitely changed it. The novel’s French translator called me a few weeks after 9/11 and asked me what I thought about changing a line from the monologue as it appears in the book: “Let the Arabs bomb it all to rubble.” I don’t know if I would have written the line if I had written the novel in October 2001, but that was the line, that was what Monty thought at that time, and I didn’t feel right censoring it. In the film monologue there were certain changes that had to be made because it’s set in a post-9/11 time frame. I wanted to reflect that, and the fact that Monty’s mind in the film is from the character in the novel. This is a guy who, for everything he does, loves his city.
Filmbay: Another sequence in the script that didn’t make it into the final film is a montage of the film’s main characters defining the concept of ‘sway.’ What is sway?
Benioff: It’s different things. It’s power. In the book it’s defined as Monty’s ability to get people to do what he wants them to do. The montage sequence was actually shot. Lee attached cameras to the actors by rigging them into a harness. Each character walks around and defines sway in a different way for the camera. For example, for Slattery it’s very much tied to money.

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